Release Date: June 22nd, 2007 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Mikael Hafstrom Actors: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Tony Shalhoub, Kim Thomson, Drew Powell, Mary McCormack, Jasmine Jessica Anthony
hough it treads the familiar, pseudo-autobiographical Stephen King territory of a writer thrown into the horrors of supernatural chaos, “1408” curiously reflects a touch more “The Shining” than “Misery.” But Cusack amusingly retains the redeeming, pathos-inducing personality of the latter’s troubled novelist. Choosing to use atmosphere and mood over blood and guts to increase suspense, director Mikael Hafstrom’s thriller admirably shies away from cheap scares and ghostly little children to slowly build a searing psychological terror, wherein the audience just might lose their cool before Cusack’s character does.
Mike Enslin’s (John Cusack) tragic past provokes him to seek out the most notorious of haunted houses and other typical phantom hangouts to debunk the existence of such afterlife entities. After writing several less-than-successful “top 10” haunted locale books, Enslin happens upon a postcard warning to stay away from room 1408 in New York’s Dolphin Hotel. Unable to resist, Enslin insists upon staying in the “evil” room that has claimed 56 lives and boasts a foreboding one-hour maximum life expectancy for its occupants. Ignoring the pleads of the Dolphin’s manager (Samuel L. Jackson), Enslin embarks on a nightmarish night of supernatural torment, during which he must battle impending psychosis, paranormal devilry, and his own inner demons. And he may not last ten minutes, let alone one hour.
“1408’s” emphasis on atmosphere and setting over blood packets and gore effects is perhaps its greatest accomplishment. This focus on a distinctly unnerving aura keeps the film refreshingly new, even when its premise dabbles in the horror stories of old. Those expecting the elaborately grotesque tortures of “Saw” or “Hostel” may be disappointed in the psychological terrors that reign supreme in this haunted house shocker – but just as effective, if not more so, is the steady building of unbearable mental anguish on Enslin’s rapidly crumbling psyche. Once the mysterious happenings transform into occult disturbances, the likes of which Enslin can no longer pass off as cunning trickery from the hotel staff, he must face his own fragility and faltering rationalizations – lending nicely to the jump scares when they finally arrive.
As Cusack’s character changes from stubborn skeptic to mortified victim, his surroundings correspondingly shift in appearance, almost like a subtler version of “Silent Hill,” where the walls crack and bleed and an icy chill blankets the room in frost. The use of such visual changes (especially later, when stormy waves flood the room) helps to keep Enslin a stranger in his surroundings – and therefore the audience as well – even though the film essentially takes place all in one small location. The normally static confines become an unpredictable world where anything can take place.
The movie is also, virtually, a one-man show, sustained by the capable Cusack. Though he holds his own, the premise harbors some clever gimmicks to facilitate the horror. As the notorious one-hour time limit counts down (thanks to an unnerving alarm clock with a mind of its own), Enslin realizes just how wrong his assumptions were – made more agitating by an ingenious plot device that has him dictate his thoughts into a tape recorder, allowing the audience to participate in his initially logical thought processes as they quickly deteriorate into a frantic reassessment of the eerie events unfolding. Though infused with plenty of cynical humor, the steadily increasing dread can’t be shaken from Hafstrom’s keen adaptation of Stephen King’s short story. And while the protagonist may be able to talk his way out of being frightened by the spooky incidents (at least for a short while), audiences aren’t likely to be able to do the same.
– Joel Massie